What An American Airlines Flight Attendant Strike Would Look Like

American Airlines flight attendants will vote to authorize a strike next week. The union is demanding 35% raises, up to $95 per hour plus 6% annual bumps and additional increases based on what pilots are given. They aren’t going to get this. And that leaves negotiations at an impasse.

They aren’t going to strike right away, and it seems like when the time comes for a job action it won’t be a full strike.

  • Under the law, they first need the National Mediation Board to release them from negotiations. There’s a 30 day “cooling off” period. Then and only then can they legally strike (but they do not have to do so).

  • The timing is playing out as I’ve expected – no contract agreement is possible until after fall union elections. Anything that the union agrees to that’s remotely within the ballpark of what the company will offer is going to be viewed as a failure by a significant portion of rank and file members.

    Agreeing to a contract now would undermine union officer re-elections. Once re-elected, they’re in a stronger position to agree to something that many members won’t like, but that will make those members better off.

  • There’s no risk to summer travel. But come the fall, we either see an agreement or some non-traditional job actions.

And an agreement is very possible. When the union asked for the mediator in the spring, they reported to flight attendants that negotiations were going well (discussions with the company has been “productive” and they have “worked through many issues.”).

However, if there’s no agreement, it’s worth remembering that this is a weak union and that dictates its strategies.

American Airlines pilots got a new contract, but they haven’t voted for it yet. They’re not happy because they see a new deal offered to United pilots, and in many ways it’s even better. So they may be back to the drawing board. But they were set to get huge raises – there’s no public sympathy chord to play there. They’ll get paid, it’s just working through how big a payday it’s going to be.

The airline’s mechanics got big raises just before the pandemic, after causing massive upheaval in the carrier’s operations over the summer of 2019.

But American’s flight attendants don’t have as much leverage. Their members don’t have the cash reserves to sit out work, the union lacks big money in the bank. Often derided as a company union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants even agreed in negotiations to help the company track down and fire crewmembers who sell their job duties. There are reports that union officials have engaged in the practice themselves.

As a result, actually going on strike where all flight attendants walk off the job isn’t the most likely scenario. In fact, the union is suggesting to flight attendants that we won’t see a traditional strike. They’re framing alternative tactics as ‘more effective.’

A strike, otherwise known as ‘self-help’, can take on many forms. A traditional strike includes all workers walking off the job, however intermittent strikes targeting certain flights provide management with less certainty and have proven more effective.

We’re more likely to see specific flights targeted on specific days, rather than an all-out strike. That keeps most flight attendants working most of the time. It minimizes the financial harm that flight attendants have to go through from a strike. It’s a way of creating uncertainty, leading customers to choose not to book American Airlines, while still taking home pay.

Rival flight attendants union AFA-CWA calls the strategy CHAOS, or “Create Havoc Around Our System.” It’s a tactic to harm the airline’s revenue by driving customers away, while continuing to work. It’s a media strategy, generating coverage of the uncertainty.

It’s more likely that flight attendants will strike out against specific flights on specific dates, rather than engaging in an all-out strike. But this won’t happen right away, even though flight attendants will likely vote overwhelmingly to authorize a strike – in order to make a strike threat appear credible, and even though many won’t actually want to strike. The threat to strike is made in the hopes of making an actual strike less likely.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) is not the union for American FAs. You’re thinking of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA). Very big difference. Very big.

  2. If AA replaced its entire frontline staff ..

    Mind you, most are good, but too many are awful! ..

    But if AA was a fully self-service airline, automated boarding, no crew on board (get an FAA exemption for that!) ..

    Then I would fly AA even if fares were the same as staffed airlines.

  3. There’s no reason for the union to accept anything less than weak financial proposal they presented to management. Realistically, it barely goes above inflation and doesn’t account for the changing work conditions. Even if the company gives everything the union is asking for, I wouldn’t be surprised if membership votes it down

  4. @Bob – then hire replacements and fire them. AA FAs are oldest in the industry and would be great to clean house with some younger people that actually want to work. Plus the savings on seniority pay would be massive. Companies can hire replacement workers during a strike you know. Takes a while to train a pilot but only a few hours to show someone how to mix me a drink

  5. @Retired Gambler, you obviously don’t know too many young people. They are a different breed these days. On another note why don’t you apply? I’d love to see it. You wouldn’t last till the end of the first day of training. Go back to your gin/tonic and roulette wheel.

  6. @Gary, any thoughts on the labor issues with the Alaska FAs? I have a friend who is an FA there and had been posting photos of picketing with messaging aimed at management but posting on social media to the public, with signs like “Pay us or chaos.” Seems like that’s the sort of thing you really don’t want potential costumers seeing as it won’t earn sympathy. No costumers want to hear that the employees of the airline are planning to ruin your trip. Anyway, I’m getting the impression that the FAs are deeply unhappy with management and Sara Nelson surely isn’t helping there.

  7. @retired gambler At their current rate of being able to train 150 new flight attendants a week. It’d take them over 3 years to replace the entire workgroup. Add in the high turnover rate for new hire flight attendants. It’d take over 5 years to replace everyone. Plus, training takes over 6 weeks safety and first aid training. It seems it would be a lot cheaper to just give in to the unions low, easy to meet demands

  8. @UK it’s only flight hours. Most flight attendants only “work” around 80 hours a month. Anybody who takes this $95 at face value is clearly getting a severe misconception of what a flight attendant makes. For comparison, pilots make upwards to $400 an hour with far more efficient duty days.
    This is the problem with getting information from emotionally driven blogs and other forms of gossip instead of factual news sites. Honestly, if it wasn’t for all of the fun trolling this site brings myself, I wouldn’t be here

  9. @Retired Gambler: You clearly have zero idea of what flight attendants are trained to do.

  10. Gary, once again you are clueless.
    The Flight Attendant’s at AA SHUT IN DOWN IN 93!

  11. Being an FA is such an awful job. It saddens me to know they have little leverage but I am also afraid of what it would be like if they did.

  12. Company needs to get rid of all unions! They are nothing more than a way to hold the company absolutely hostage!!! Take a play out of the Delta Airlines playbook when the bought Northwest Airlines and get rid of the union!! I guarantee you that enough people would come back to work minus this ridiculous union!!

  13. The $95/hr for Senior Flight Attendants (senior surlyness?) would also be bumped 6% a year during the contract. So at end of contract, they’d make $110/hr. W. O. W.

  14. Its insane that people think if youn are under paid just go! How lazy and selfish….the issue is America corporations not paying its workers. As doctor, nurses, teachers, truck drivers all essential workers that kept the country afloat when the world was closed and burning, they kept going, they couldn’t stop and protect themselves many died, they all should be paid well and get the raise they all deserve!

  15. Re the 1993 strike: It lasted five days, and AA was beginning to recover by day five. Then the President – of the US – Clinton – called Bob Crandall and told him to give in to the FAs, not in those words, of course, but he had no choice. Workers for many companies were irate due to the NAFTA agreement and the FAs benefitted from that. Otherwise I believe that AA could have rebuilt the FA population. Corporate Headquarters was flooded with applicants for FA positions.

  16. @Mark: I don’t think you appreciate that the “hourly” pay is only for flight hours and does not include pre-flight briefing, checking of emergency equipment, boarding or disembarkation. It also does not include delays on the ground.

    A full-time flight attendant works ~80-hours a month. At present, a flight attendant tops out at $68.25 an hour. Working full time, they make $65,000 a year.

    Want to argue they are overpaid?

  17. @Cheryl Gardner: That’s not what a strike would look like today.

    AA is running most flights at FAA minimums.

    All the union has to do is wait for the plane to board and have one flight attendant announce they are on strike. That flight is going nowhere, particularly if it is a return flight from Europe. This would be particularly effective at non-hub airports where there are no reserve flight attendants.

    The company would not be able to predict which flights would be targeted and the system would grind to a halt and passengers would be left stranded so would not book on AA.

    Since almost all flight attendants would report for work, they can’t be fired or replaced.

    The flight attendants, because they have a union, would be able to quickly ground AA and management would have to negotiate in good faith instead of ramming a contract down their throats.

  18. Obviously NOBODY on here knows exactly how flight crews are paid… you click in no pay, you show up to airplane still no pay… passengers start boarding still NO PAY!! Flight crews busy with getting plane ready for take off pilots doing there thing flight attendant doing there’s during the busiest time of flying boarding…. STILL NO PAY!! What you say??? Now aircraft doors close still at gate doing SAFETY demo no pay… but wait brakes release plane pushes back… NOW PAY STARTS!! So now from time the plane pushes back til brakes are set at arriving gate that is pay… brakes set pay stops floors open deplane no pay!! Waiting on that wheelchair for a passenger no pay….
    They aren’t paid like the rest of the world there’s a lot of shot they do for you while not getting paid for it! Please always remember they are there to SAVE your life not KISS it!!

  19. @ Bob. I essentially agree on your point about pay with the stipulation that it is for most the US Part 121 passenger airlines.
    As to your post at 1906 7/19 . . . I completely agree.
    “This is the problem with getting information from emotionally driven blogs and other forms of gossip instead of factual news sites. Honestly, if it wasn’t for all of the fun trolling this site brings myself, I wouldn’t be here”
    I’ve found the comments to be considerably more interesting than the published articles, many of which have dubious value to travelers.

  20. Comments from The Gambler obviously justify why many FAs get hostile at times while on the job. This individual screams tired,old drunk and nobody puts any credibility in any of their slurred words. I know several FAs who are currently working and retired and the stories told reveal MANY of the Travelling Public are the underbelly of Society that have little to contribute in the grand scheme of things. The Gambler…..lol…..can only imagine what this clown looks like.

  21. Bob,Roger And James is correct.

    Alison no one wants you on their airline. Take a bus.

    Too many experts in a field you all know nothing about. Any outrage for Pilots at $600k a year, yet let’s crap on FA at $68500 currently a year. And FA and all airlines staff worked to keep country going during pandemic too, keeping passengers going to say goodbye to loved ones, mail, cargo of food and supplies worldwide, oflights transporting hearts, lungs and other transplant organs.
    You all are gross and need to look at your own situations and keep your useless opinions to yourself. The dingdong suggestion of replacing the entire FA staff is the most ignorant thing I ever read. How stupid.

  22. I support all what they do. They deserve to be paid from the time they arrive on the job. Taking in passengers and helping them leave all should be paid.

  23. No raise in 4 years for senior f as at aa . Sorry Charlie, it’s time to pay up. Support fellow union members . Do the teachers police firemen and other union members get treated this way ? United has straight seniority for more things afa union. Aa has a subpar union apfa. Remember that when you have a choice to book travel.

  24. Do the teachers police firemen and other union members get treated this way ? United has straight seniority for more things afa union. Aa has a subpar union apfa. Remember that when you have a choice to book travel.

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